Sex and the Ummah

This was the title of a really good commentary for an online Islamic newsletter for quite some time. So, I’m not making it up on my own. This week has brought just a tad too many funny (or sad or sick) stories along these lines not to give it a shot myself. One of them was a report that Egypt was second for online porn inquiries. I didn’t read all the details—like second to which country? Actually, I thought it would have been second to Pakistan, which I had read a similar report about some time ago.

I know, you probably thought it would be some where in the Gulf, but it’s not. I’m not sure what that says (about you, or,) about the Gulf. Because then there was this story from the Gulf.

Some “Saudi Prince” is accused of the gruesome murder of his male servant, with whom he had been traveling for several months. He is also accused of being gay. He denies both claims. However, as for sleeping in the same bed, as reported from one of the hotels, he says, there was no other room in the inn. And although there was sofa in that same room, he did not want his servant sleeping on it, because he had always considered him an equal, and that would have been contrary to that claim.

I thought, are you joking? I’m not recounting all the details, many of which were already incredible, because that one clinched it for me. If there’s one thing I have learned living and traveling in countries that still make extensive use of in-home servants (in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East), it is that no one, not even the nicest ones, considers their servants as equal. It just doesn’t happen.

Now, from the get-go, there are a few basic things to get straight. Islam is not one of those religions that extols the merits of celibacy: not for everyday ordinary folks, not for its Prophets, not for the priestly class, not for those seeking spiritual enlightenment. On the contrary, really, really good sexual release (as in orgasm, in case that is too obscure) is supposed to clear one from preoccupation with such, and thereby make it easier to attain spiritual clarity.

Marriage is not a sacrament, it is a contract. The thing that is being negotiated actually is access to one’s partner sexually. And since it is not a sacrament, it also has this positive attitude toward sex for sex’s sake. In other words, marriage is not about procreation because marriage is not about children. I mean, obviously there are children, but it doesn’t matter to the terms of the exchange as envisioned in the law. It is considered a really, really good thing to marry because one wants to have licit sexual relations.

Now some are tempted to say, or do actually say, that marriage is the only lawful place for sexual relations in Islam. But I I’m not so misinformed or naïve. The Qur’an also considers it licit for a man to have sex with his female concubine. All right, we are supposedly over slavery—but again this is just to show how sometimes there are complexities that people want to wash over. It is also true that more explicit confirmation of heterosex is part of the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet. Furthermore, not just hetero-sex, but explicitly male sexuality is confirmed. The language is nuanced, but it is there. There tends to be a lot more obscurity about female sexuality in the Qur’an.

The jurists made up for this obscurity, in some places. They take some leads from the Prophet. For example, the Prophet recommended foreplay between a man and his wife: with kisses and caresses. It is also a legal right for the woman to enjoy sex and to enjoy climax. If not, she has legitimate uncontestable grounds for divorce. That says a lot, considering she does not have equal ground for divorce with the husband. Well maybe the grounds are equal but the procedures are not.

Okay, so we enter in the 21st century along with every one else and some of the issues get raised here amongst Muslims like amongst non-Muslims. Some of them are sticky. For example, women I know (and some men) are working to keep the marriageable age somewhere near 18 years for both males and females. A number of Muslim countries have provisional marriageable age for girls at 16. Some of them have no age set, and this is a huge problem. Some cases are being contested for families marrying off their daughters before they even hit their teens, or just barely into it.

We have multiple strategies to employ on keeping some kind of age limit, but it happens. Using 7th- or 8th-century logic or precedent is not acceptable for our work. The interest of the girl is. There is such a thing as too young, and we know this today because of all kinds of evidence about simple physical maturation.

There is also some interesting research just completed in Malaysia by Sisters in Islam about the practice of polygyny. Again 7th- or 8th-century logic is combined with the terms of the Qur’an in order to keep this in practice. And although there are a minority of cases, with monogamy the overwhelming majority except in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, it is problematic in most cases. Ultimately we are promoting the practice of a marriage of equality. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s a goal. For sure that goal cannot be reached when it is permissible for a man to have more than one wife.

Some use the logic of the Qur’an to further argue for monogamy as the norm because the preconditions for polygyny are especially impossible to fulfill these days. But again as I said, we’re working on it.

Another thing which is really getting a lot of attention, and not just in the denial for the Saudi Prince, is same-sex relations. As this millennium began, more Muslims were out as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgendered, and queer LBGTQ than at any other time in history. Before, Muslims were out according to their nationality. They made no claims over religion although coincidently inherited. This is different, there are organizations cropping up with “Islam” and “LBGTQ” in the title or self definition. This is where I want to spend a little bit more time, rather than on the many other issues about sexuality that I have raised, or that could be raised.

Most people don’t seem to realize that the kinds of same-sex relations that are going on today are not like same-sex relations at other times in human history. There were always people of the same sex having sexual relations, but today there are new claims. It’s like our proposals for more equality in marriage over and against the patriarchal marriage of the past. Same-sex couples are making claims as families and asking for thing like marriage. Same-sex Muslims are making claims as Muslims. This is where my interest began.

At one level, this is a private matter. It is not any one’s business what position somebody likes. But all of my life I have had some relationship with the LBGTQ community, or in my own family. I stayed focused on being an ally. I trained at my university to be able to offer my office as a safe space, in order to prevent harassment and even violence. But for most of this I felt my response was secular. I mean, I did it without thinking about my religion. But I remember the steps that made me change my perspective. To move me toward what I would call now a faith perspective on being an ally to LBGTQ Muslims (in particular, and therefore just as friendly to others).

The bottom line now is that tawhidic paradigm. If we are one before Allah, and I firmly believe we are, then, I cannot claim to humanity greater than anyone else—no matter how different my point of view, my preference, or my sexual orientation might be. But I have to be honest, as much as I am learning about new textual analysis to challenge entrenched homophobia etc., there is one thing that really, really got my attention.

Once I started meeting out Muslims from the gay community, I also learned that they were most often told they had to make a choice. Either be gay, lesbian, or whatever their sexual orientation, or be Muslim. In fact, they were barred from having access to Allah through customs, families, communities, mosques, and the institutions constructed in the name of Islam. That’s not possible.

No one can intercede between a believer and Allah.

That’s when I knew the opposition was clearly in the wrong, no matter what interpretations they claim to follow. When you cannot simply say, well I disagree, or even, I think it is wrong; but then the matter is between the person and Allah. When your disagreement must put you between a person and Allah, you have just sunk as low as you can go. Nothing you can say or do would exonerate your perspective in my mind.

It is true that there is much more work going on the issue of same-sex relations. There are nuanced interpretations of the Qur’an there are more thorough searches of historical articulations especially some interesting literature by and about same-sex women, there are human rights efforts and now even queer-friendly mosques or mosque settings. Until it becomes, as it should be, a non-issue, we need all these efforts to remove hatred and violence just because someone sees the matter differently.

If you think about it, anytime marriage is used to explain away rape, as in: “she is my wife, I can do anything I want,” then, clearly we have no clue what consensual means. We’d approve of forced sex or rape because it is between two heterosexuals with a contract, but we’d kill or hurt someone who had consensual sex with another person just because they are of the same sex.

Yeah, we have a long way to go on these matters.